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Penn State Wrestling is Going to Win the NCAA Tournament

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Despite the outcome in Lincoln, the Nittany Lions have still gotta be the favorites headed to Detroit. Right?

Tony Rotundo

While the outcome of the Big Ten tournament was far from what any Penn State wrestling fan had wanted to see, there was immediately an outpouring of concern posts, as well as direct replies to my posts, questioning whether Cael Sanderson’s squad would be able to bounce back in Detroit, where it actually counts.

In short:

It’s long been an unofficial mantra that it’s tougher for a team like PSU, whose coaching philosophy basically boils down to ABS (always be scoring), to break through and dominate in a tournament like the Big Ten conference tournament, with top to bottom solid wrestlers and only four rounds in the main bracket (with byes for certain wrestlers), than at the NCAAs. That’s been consistent for the years in which there’s been other solid teams in the conference – and 2022 was no different.

But the outcome of the conference tournament doesn’t necessarily correlate to a predetermined outcome in the tournament that actually matters – and it could in fact point in the opposite direction.

And Penn State’s got the best coaching staff for getting wrestlers ready to go when it actually matters – on the mat, at the NCAAs. They’ve proven in the last decade plus to know what it takes to get the best out of the men they bring to the final tournament – with the wrestlers turning it on when they need to.

As Bo Nickal said after pinning Myles Martin in front of an Ohio State crowd in the 2018 finals in Cleveland, winning titles at Penn State is what they do. And there’s a few reasons why that is, and why I’m confident PSU will walk out of Detroit as the title winners in 2022 – namely, a committed opponent having an unexpectedly strong conference tournament performance, and non-placement tournament points.

Where did that conference tournament come from?

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a team that has a loaded roster top to bottom, including an Olympian, is ranked behind Penn State in the dual and tournament rankings, having lost to the Nittany Lions during the wrestling season, but comes out absolutely on fire the first day of the Big Ten tournament and wins the title.

That’s right – I’m talking about the 2018 Ohio State Buckeye wrestling team.

Obviously, there are marked differences between that squad and Michigan’s team in 2022; fewer transfers, of course, and Kyle Snyder was on a different level (Myles Amine is good, but not Snyder good). But that OSU squad actually won the Big Ten title by a whopping 16 points – and still lost the national title to Penn State, virtually at home. It just shows how vastly different the two tournaments are; but it also shows how a near-historic tournament can make it a championship one for a team.

In 2018, Ohio State only had two wrestlers who wrestled below seed – and one of them was the 2nd place wrestler (Jordan) who wrestled to 3rd (the other was their lowest ranked wrestler). In typical PSU fashion, on the flip side, in 2018 PSU had three wrestlers wrestle below seed – including Jason Nolf, the top seed who medically forfeited to 6th place before going on to win a national title on one leg. Penn State even had a transfer wrestler that got a BYE in the first round and then lost the next, and lost in the consolation bracket to earn no placement points – something fans of this year’s team are infinitely familiar with.

This past tournament was much the same – except even better for the Wolverines. Michigan had only one number one seed and two number twos, but finished the tournament with five finalists. Not a single Michigan wrestler wrestled below seed. Seven of their ten wrestlers wrestled above seed – even Storr, their 149 lber who was the only UM grappler without an autobid at 8th in 149, and didn’t get an at large – was seeded 11 and placed 8.

B1Gs seed to placement

weight 2018 OSU seed 2018 OSU final diff 2018 PSU seed 2018 PSU final diff 2022 UM seed 2022 UM final diff 2022 PSU seed 2022 PSU final diff
weight 2018 OSU seed 2018 OSU final diff 2018 PSU seed 2018 PSU final diff 2022 UM seed 2022 UM final diff 2022 PSU seed 2022 PSU final diff
125 3 1 2 14 12 2 1 1 0 2 10 -8
133 2 2 0 6 13 -7 5 3 2 1 1 0
141 1 1 0 2 3 -1 6 4 2 1 1 0
149 5 3 2 1 1 0 11 8 3 7 7 0
157 4 2 2 1 6 -5 3 2 1 10 3 7
165 9 12 -3 3 2 1 4 2 2 10 10 0
174 2 3 -1 1 1 0 2 2 0 1 1 0
184 2 2 0 1 1 0 2 1 1 1 2 -1
197 1 1 0 2 2 0 5 3 2 2 1 1
285 2 1 1 3 3 0 4 4 0 3 3 0
averages 0.3 -1 1.3 -0.1

Having the opportunity and capability to wrestle above seed is what won the tournament for Michigan – Penn State, on the flip side, had only two wrestlers wrestle *above* seed, with the biggest void occurring at 125, where Hildebrandt was unable to get a single point for PSU.

In 2018, having a ridiculously good conference tournament didn’t help Ohio State – they won the Big Ten title pretty handily, but the aforementioned Nickal decking of MyMar meant that not even Snyder could put the Buckeyes on top. This past year’s conference tournament was a much closer battle for second place than it was in 2018, which bodes well for PSU and their rebound chances.

Bonus points, bonus points, bonus points

Obviously, the more wrestlers a team has that go deeper into the tournament, the higher their odds are for winning the team title – placement points are where the bulk of a team’s potential points are scored. But it’s not just about placement; a team that is predicated on scoring points on top of points, from every position, will inevitably be harmed if its wrestlers are unable to do so. And that’s exactly what we saw in the Big Ten tournament when Penn State finished second.

Six of PSU’s ten wrestlers were seeded first or second at the tournament in Lincoln – understandably, as that was, on paper, where they belonged. But those seeds in a fourteen-grappler-draw meant that those six PSUers got BYEs in the first round; and while on paper it’s great to automatically make it into the next round, that limits the bonus point opportunities for Penn State.

There were definite points left on the table for Penn State with those BYEs (see Bubba’s great post for point potentials) - PSU came in second to Michigan by just 1.5 points, which means that one pin and one tech in that first round would have had the Nittany Lions tied for the title. And since both Aaron Brooks and Carter Starocci had pins in the first period of their first bouts at the B1Gs, and Nick Lee had a Tech Fall, that wouldn’t have been an unrealistic expectation had they had another bout under their belts.

Going back to my earlier comparison - in 2018, OSU had 2 wrestlers with BYEs in the first round of the Big Ten tournament (Micah Jordan at 157, Kollin Moore at 197); Penn State had 3 (Keener at 133, Retherford at 149, Bo Nickal at 184); this was prior to the (correct, in my opinion) rule change that the top two seeds got automatic BYEs, and the BYEs were random. But this rule also meant that OSU had five wrestlers who were seeded top two and were able to score bonus for their teams in the first round (the Buckeyes ended up with 3 pins, 2 techs, 1 major, 1 decision, and 2 BYEs in the first round, compared to 3 pins, 0 techs, 2 major, 1 decision, and 3 BYEs for PSU). That’s a difference of 4 points right there (14 bonus points for OSU vs 10 for PSU, since Keener didn’t win his next bout).

Compare that to Michigan’s and PSU’s first rounds this year – since Penn State had 6 guys seeded 1 or 2, and those were guaranteed BYEs due to rules changes, the opportunity for bonus was significantly lessened.

The NCAAs, on the other hand, don’t have BYEs in the first round; there are 33 wrestlers, with one pigtail bout and five rounds of wrestling in the main bracket. That’s a wider open field, with more opportunity for immediate bonus points for all of Penn State’s hammers.

BRACKETS aren’t the key to winning

But Cari, you say! What about those godawful brackets, and the fact that PSU only has nine wrestlers going to Detroit!

To those folks I say, what about it? In 2019, Penn State won the title going away with only nine wrestlers, and relative underperformances in some key areas. In 2018, same deal – only nine Nittany Lions made the trip to Cleveland, facing a home OSU squad that won the conference crown in dominating fashion.

Basically, what happens on paper, in a void, isn’t what happens on the wrestling mat.

The brackets on paper are tough for PSU – no doubt. Both Drew Hildebrandt and Brady Berge must face the #1 seed in the second round, and Beau Bartlett has to take on Sammy Sasso of OSU in that same bout. Plus Greg Kerkvliet, with his semifinal loss in the Big Tens to Cassioppi, is in Gable Steveson’s half. But this PSU coaching staff, and the mentality of the teams under them, is primed to exceed expectations when it counts – and they work towards making the podium.

Last year’s team, which is bringing back four national title winners, is also a prime example of this; despite the fact that Iowa had the team title locked up before the finals had started, the discussion of the night was PSU’s performance. The Nittany Lions went 4 for 4 in title bouts, with grit and heart to spare.

In addition to 2021, the comparisons to the 2018 team abound yet again, but this time as more of a predictor of the potential of the team. In that year’s NCAA tournament, after being trounced by the Buckeyes at Big Tens, three Nittany Lions wrestled above seed: Nick Lee (placed 5th, seeded 8), Nolf (won, seeded 3rd), Vincenzo Joseph (won, seeded 3rd), while Retherford, Nickal, and Hall all wrestled to seed. And PSU still won the team title with two highly seeded wrestlers fall short of their own expectations: Nick Nevills came in seeded 3rd but placed 7th, and Shakur Rasheed was seeded fifth and placed 7th.

This year, Penn State rolls to Detroit with four number one seeds and one number two who’s got to be a favorite. And even though Hildebrandt, Bartlett, and Berge are seeded in the teens – it wouldn’t be a shock, far from it, for each of them to be standing on the podium next weekend.

Could Michigan, or even Iowa, win the team title? Of course. Nothing’s a given, especially in an individually dependent team sport like NCAA wrestling. But if I was a better, I’d put my money on PSU.

This team knows what it has to do to win, and is in a much better position to do so than they have been in previous years, also on the road against a defacto home squad. Give me Cael, Casey, Cody, and Co – I wouldn’t have it any other way.